Love Island is reinforcing a dangerous stereotype

As a long-standing (and somewhat secret) fan of Love Island, I was looking forward to its return to our screens this winter. The temperature had dropped at the perfect time and I could think of no better way to spend my evenings than curled up in front of the popular dating show with a cup of tea.

Last night, I tuned in for the daily dose of sexy singles (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist) but the next 40 minutes was the very opposite of relaxing – on the contrary, it made for some very uncomfortable viewing.

I could barely bring myself to watch “bombshell” Zara, a Londoner who has already caused quite a stir in the villa. She is currently in a love triangle with Tom (from Manchester) and Olivia (also from London), with the two women vying for Tom’s affections. The reason it made for difficult viewing was that to me, it looks like Zara has been ostracised by her fellow contestants for seeking to couple up with Tom when he was paired with Olivia. Why? It is important to note that Zara’s actions are not out of the ordinary for the villa – so what could possibly be behind her being picked out as a persona non grata?

I have an idea, and it’s making me wince: could it be anything to do with the fact that Zara is a woman of colour?

The microaggressions faced by women of colour in dating have been long discussed. We do have a general tendency, however, to over-focus on gender relations in all-female groups (for example, branding certain people as “Karens” etc). While that is valid, it is important to note how some men can be guilty of stereotyping and undermining women of colour, too.

In Zara’s case, she was compared and contrasted with her “competition”, Olivia, by one of their fellow male contestants. Zara was described as “sexy” and “beautiful”, but Ron warned Tom that she may be “overwhelming” – while Olivia (a white woman) was the “right kind of fiery”.

I cringed when I heard this. Tell me, Love Island, what the “right kind of fiery” means?

Instantly, I was transported back to a party that I had attended, aged 22, where a man told him that he was “almost frightened” by the “fire behind my eyes”. He then went on to explain his very own conspiracy theory about popular 2008 X Factor winner, Alexandra Burke. According to this individual, the reason “everyone hated her” was because she was a confident Black woman. I was aghast, both then and now.

I felt similarly, watching yesterday’s Love Island episode. Men who were previously interested in (and have expressed a sexual desire for) Zara were suddenly ostracising and rejecting her because of her “attitude”. This was particularly triggering for me. I can’t count the number of times men – and not just white men – have told me or implied that while they are interested in me romantically, they are cautious of my temperament. One man told me within hours of meeting me that he would have to be “wary” because he was aware “how fiery East African women were”. The really sad thing is that this didn’t even shock me.

Where do we even begin? Black women have long been stereotyped as the “aggressor”. We are all familiar with the “strong/angry Black woman” narrative. Meghan Markle has called it out in the past. The fact that some men are attracted to women of colour but frightened of their “attitude” or “strength” makes me wonder if we are all doomed. Will we constantly find ourselves having to push back against damaging narratives played out in own personal lives and on our television screens? How is that fair? It is exhausting.

Love Island has a wide reach and transcends generations. With this level of social influence, the reality TV show has a responsibility to ensure that people from across society are equally represented. This year, it’s clear that we have come a long way in terms of the contestants’ physical diversity – but what about diversity of opinion?


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